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Not a good sign: Lawyers getting involved between NASCAR, new Race Team Alliance

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When the new Race Team Alliance introduced itself to the world July 7, everything seemed like sunny skies and good feelings going forward in the world of NASCAR. Everyone spoke positively, optimistically and seemed to be full of confidence that all — owners, drivers, teams and NASCAR — would benefit.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton said during an impromptu press conference last Friday at New Hampshire that there was no animosity between the sanctioning body and the new upstart ownership group.

“I wanted to dispel the perception of animosity to start with and then back that up with saying we’re going to do business as usual,” Helton said. “I think everybody in the garage area knows how we do our business and the role they play in it, and so we’ll continue to do it that way.”

But less than a week after Helton’s comments, the first salvo of what potentially could become an eventual antagonistic relationship has been fired, and it boils down to what oftentimes is one of the nastiest words in professional sports:

Lawyers.

The amicable original intention of the RTA has now been responded to by International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s sister company, as well as NASCAR itself. Both sibling companies have made it very clear to the RTA that if there is to be any communication between both sides, it will be through attorneys, not man-to-man between RTA boss and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France or second-in-command Helton.

As the old saying goes, can you see where this could potentially go to hell in a handbasket very quickly when lawyers are involved?

Kauffman, at least publicly, doesn’t seem overly concerned, according to an interview with Bob Pockrass of SportingNews.com late Wednesday.

“It’s not an animosity thing, it’s just a formality thing,” Kauffman told Pockrass. “NASCAR is a big company and they’re very sensitive legally. They’ve had experience (with antitrust) and they want to be very formal and correct in the initial stages. … It’s understandable. Hopefully as time goes on and both sides get used to each other a little bit, those barriers (will) tend to go down. I think it will be fine.”

The RTA’s original intention of pooling resources, cutting expenses, etc., is quite noble indeed. Even with countless cost-cutting measures, including large-scale layoffs in recent years, plus teams folding throughout all three primary NASCAR series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – the cost of operating teams remains extremely expensive.

Only 10 years ago, the average team operational budget in Sprint Cup was in the $10 to $15 million per year range – just to competitive.

Today, that number is more in the $20 to $25 million per year range — again, just to be competitive. And when you have multiple teams within an organization, that cost can quickly reach upwards of $100 million for a four-car group like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing and up to $75 million for a three-car operation like Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.

For all the good things NASCAR has done to reduce costs, including the one-engine rule, the interchangeable Car of Tomorrow and its Generation 6 successor, it still costs a lot for team owners to remain in the game.

That’s why it’s not surprising some teams have folded or suspended operations, including at least two Sprint Cup teams this season already.

That’s also why so many sponsors have come and gone over the last six or seven years, and have forced teams to go from having one primary sponsor all season long to a number of different primary sponsors for only a certain numbered block of races per season.

The reason: overall, sponsoring a finite number of races (anywhere from, say, six to 16) is much cheaper and an easier pill to swallow for sponsors, particularly when questioned about return on investment by their shareholders.

And with significant changes likely to come to the sport next season, including a revamped schedule, the possibility of several venue changes within the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as more rules and equipment changes, the nine initial owner members of the RTA are understandably looking out for themselves both individually and collectively.

But with lawyers now involved, the hoped-for amicable relationship gives the appearance that things are already starting to tug at the seams.

Few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass in its one-for-all, all-for-one mantra. It’s not unthinkable that if NASCAR continues to struggle at the box office and in TV ratings, that RTA may try to exert and wield some pretty powerful clout:

  • Like forcing NASCAR to deviate from its “our way or the highway” mindset that has been in place for 65 years.
  • Like forcing NASCAR to give team owners significantly more power, perhaps a prelude to the long-talked about possibility of adding franchising to give owners more of a say in the way the sport operates.
  • And the biggest potential possibility of the RTA: If the owners stay united and take a hard line stance and force the issue, they could eventually demand the power to oust or retain key NASCAR officials, including France and Helton.

That last possibility could also potentially be why both sides are now starting to lawyer up. While the intention is supposed to be amicable and formal, the end result could be something entirely different.

After all, team owners in NASCAR have the least power overall of any other major professional sport. Unlike in other sports, NASCAR team owners don’t have the ability to hire or fire the sanctioning body’s top executives, don’t have voting privileges when it comes to sanctioning body decisions, have no say in what rules can be changed (although owners do have input, NASCAR doesn’t have to listen to them), and have only the limited power that the sanctioning body gives them.

Up to this point, the France family-run and privately-owned business model has worked well. Well, let’s clarify that: it’s worked well up until about 2008, when the economy went south and NASCAR’s fortunes, popularity and TV ratings began to go with it.

But I’m not saying France, Helton and others have been the cause of NASCAR’s downfall in recent years. On the contrary.

France and Helton and those under them have done a good job when faced with some very trying circumstances and situations – certainly circumstances and situations that most other sports leagues have not had to deal with as much.

NASCAR’s top officials have worked diligently to improve safety, control costs as best they can, brought parity to the performance of race cars and trucks while also making the overall racing better, and have worked hard to attract new sponsors and businesses to the sport.

They’ve worked at trying to convince hotel chains and chambers of commerce in various locales that NASCAR visits to not gouge fans for room costs on race weekends, lest that not only hurts the fans, it also hurts the overall sport and the businesses themselves.

They’ve worked to keep the sport viable and relevant. They’ve worked at alternative ways to get the sport’s message across when countless media outlets have all but forgotten coverage of NASCAR events and news. Whereas particularly newspapers used to devote hundreds of column inches to yearly NASCAR coverage in the past, now most of those same papers will run maybe a paragraph or two at best (some even less, giving nothing more than a one-sentence “report” of who won that week’s race).

Sadly, while NASCAR certainly loses in that instance, it’s the fans that lose the most because they’re deprived of the kind of expansive media coverage that helped make them fans in the first place.

While I was optimistic and hopeful that the RTA and NASCAR relationship would be good for the sport, the fact that we will now have third party attorneys doing the “communicating” between both sides is both foreboding and ominous.

We can hope for the best, but right now the best is starting to look quite concerning.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

VIDEO: Mahindra completes Formula E show run at Buddh circuit

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Less than 24 hours after scoring a double-points finish in the Buenos Aires ePrix, the Mahindra Formula E team was en route to India for a show run at the Buddh International Circuit.

The track hosted the Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix between 2011 and 2013 before dropping off the calendar, but remains a hub for motorsport in the country.

Mahindra is the only Indian team racing in Formula E and also has a Moto3 team, offering a unique opportunity to put a car up against a bike on-track.

Nick Heidfeld also took the opportunity to complete some donuts in the Formula E car on the main straight, much like Sebastian Vettel did after winning his fourth F1 championship back in 2013.

As Formula E’s global expansion looks set to continue in its third season, might an Indian race be on the cards in the near future?

“What we are trying to do with the demo run, and what Anand Mahindra and Pawan Goenka said, is that we intend to bring a race to India,” Mahindra team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“We want to bring it as quickly as we can. We are talking with the right people. As long as we’ve got the minds behind it, the infrastructure shouldn’t be a problem.

“The promoters know how to host a race, they know how to bring the infrastructure whether in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, we won’t have a problem in hosting a race.”

Sebastien Ogier continues perfect start to WRC season in Sweden

KARLSTAD, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 13:  Sebastien Ogier of France and Julien Ingrassia of France compete in their Volkswagen Motorsport Volkswagen Polo R WRC during Day Two of the WRC Sweden on February 13, 2016 in Karlstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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Three-time FIA World Rally Championship winner Sebastien Ogier continued his perfect start to the 2016 season by claiming maximum points at this weekend’s Rally Sweden.

The event in Karlstad looked poised to be cancelled earlier in the week after a lack of snowfall in the area reduced many parts of the rally into a gravel course.

A revised 12-stage rally was brokered to ensure that the event still went ahead, with Ogier leading from start to finish across the three days of running.

The Frenchman came under pressure from Hayden Paddon on Saturday, who cut the deficit at the front down to just 8.8 seconds in his first run in the Hyundai i20.

However, Ogier managed to keep his cool and open up the gap once again before eventually completing the rally with an advantage of almost half a minute.

The result continued Ogier’s perfect start to the season following his victory in Monaco last month, giving him 56/56 possible points at the top of the championship standings.

“Two wins from the first two rallies – it can’t get any better,” Ogier said. “Yesterday was a little bit too crazy and I took risks like I had never done in my life. Conditions were terrible at the beginning of the week but the organisers did an impressive job so that we had a good rally.”

Paddon retained second place until the finish to match his best ever WRC result and become the first non-European to stand on the podium in Sweden. Mads Østberg finished the rally in third place for M-Sport Ford ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen and Ott Tanak.

Following the conclusion of the rally, event organizers in Karlstad announced that they had agreed a new three-year hosting deal for Rally Sweden, safeguarding its future until the end of 2019.

“The negotiations have been going on for almost six months and today Rally Sweden can confirm that a new three year contract with WRC Promoter has been signed,” a statement read.

“One week ago we were more dead than alive and couldn’t see any future for the event. Now, once again, we have managed to put on an amazing event and it is an amazing feeling to be able to confirm that we have agreed on a new three year contract.

“We have an absolutely amazing organization that proves that we can pull through the hardest of times.”

McLaren releases audio of first MP4-31 fire-up

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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As the countdown to the beginning of Formula 1 pre-season testing in Barcelona continues, McLaren has followed Ferrari’s lead by releasing an audio snippet of its 2016 car being fired up for the first time.

McLaren enters the new year hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2015 campaign that was marred by struggles with its Honda power unit, limiting drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button to just 27 points across the course of the season.

The crew at Woking has been working tirelessly over the winter to get the new car, the MP4-31, ready for the new season, and everything now appears set for the first pre-season test in Barcelona.

On Sunday, McLaren released a short audio snippet of the car being fired up at its base ahead of its official unveil on February 21.

Pre-season testing begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22, with the eighth and final day of running taking place on March 4.

NHRA: Parachute fails on Gary Densham’s career-best Funny Car run (video)

Densham crash
(Photo courtesy NHRA's official Twitter account)
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Veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Gary Densham has been hurtling down drag strips for more than 30 years.

Saturday, the 69-year-old Densham had the best day of his career — and one of the worst, at the same time.

The Southern California native was making a qualifying run during the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

The good news for Densham: he ran a career-best 4.050 seconds in his Dodge Charger, qualifying 11th in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.

The bad news: the parachutes on his Funny Car failed to deploy and Densham ran head-on into a catchfence at the end of Auto Club Raceway’s short runoff area. While Densham’s car was destroyed, he walked away uninjured.

And that’s the best news of all.

Check out the video and then some tweets about the incident and the day, including visits by former IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Tommy Lee of rock group Motley Crue:

Follow @JerryBonkowski